Reine des mouettes

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Je t’ai vue rose, je m’en souviens,
Sous les brumes mousselines
De ton deuil ancien.

Rose d’aimer le baiser qui chagrine
Tu te laissais accorder à mes mains
Sous les brumes mousselines
Voiles de nos liens.

Rougis, rougis, mon baiser te devine
Mouette prise aux nœuds des grands chemins.

Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
Tu étais rose accordée à mes mains
Rose sous les mousselines
Et je m’en souviens.

‘Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,’ pleads Timms in The History Boys, which I like to quote here ad nauseam. Well, there’s not understanding and there’s not understanding. If I don’t understand Ezra Pound, that may simply indicate that I’m a normal human being; if I don’t understand the poem above, an unpublished verse by Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969), it’s partly because, vaguely competent though my French is, I will never have the comprehension of a native speaker, and so I fail to observe whatever idioms and intralineal meanings it may contain; in English I understand it even less. The last verse, in my rough translation:

Queen of the seagulls, my orphan girl,
You were pink given to my hands
Pink beneath the muslin
And I remember it.

Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t love it, as I love ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Beethoven defies analysis, up to a point (not that I’ve ever tried); this poem, slight, for all I know written in a stray quarter of an hour, probably doesn’t. But as I read it, thinking perhaps, What does this mean, I also think, How beautiful this is. I see the seagulls and the pink and the muslin and the mists.

When, ten or twelve years ago, I was in a voracious poetry-reading phase, I frequently read French poetry I didn’t comprehend, just for the feeling of the words. Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. The magic wouldn’t have worked with a language I didn’t speak at all – Hungarian, for example – but with French I knew at least how it sounded, if not always what it meant.

When, foolishly, I went to see Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen at ENO a few years ago, the banality of hearing it sung in English killed the opera stone dead. The mystery was shattered, Bizet’s clothes were well and truly off. For all I know the libretto is dreary in French too. Stephen Fry, writing years ago in the Literary Review:

Call me old-fashioned, purblind, hidebound, reactionary and out of touch if you will, but I believe that one of the great advantages of being born English is that one can hear the world’s greatest opera in a language other than that in which one asks strangers the way to the lavatory and orders deliveries of coal. However literate or musical the translation, opera in English always sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan. Most libretti are horribly commonplace and I feel very sorry for Italians and Germans who listen to Da Ponte and Wagner and cannot hear the pretty rhythms and alliterations of their two beautiful languages for the banal meaning they convey.

I’ve had assorted phrases from ‘Reine des mouettes’ swimming around my head for a week or so, and that’s because Francis Poulenc’s setting of the poem has insinuated itself into my brain. To quote Jeremy Lion, ‘It is a medically proven fact that if you set things to music you remember them much better, like the alphabet – and wars.’ Here is an educational song teaching facts about various countries of the world.

Poulenc was the closest thing to Haydn the last century could come up with. Four-square phrases, catchy tunes, humour, plus extra insouciance. He mingles joie de vivre and poignancy with speed and grace. I love Sylvia McNair’s performance here, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Her vowels are a bit off, but together they have the measure of a song that is very difficult to perform.

Poulenc doesn’t hang about, does he? One semiquaver and you’re in. Hear the rhythmic variety of his melodic setting too, the first two lines syncopated, the third and fourth in regular quavers. The poem doesn’t have a regular metre (how does poetic metre work in French anyway? I get confused), but even if it did you sense he’d shake it up a bit to reflect speech rhythms. When the words recur towards the end of the song he introduces further rhythmic variation through triplet figuration.

The setting of the final stanza is especially delicious, the urgent, questing harmonies of the piano and the ‘quasi parlando’ vocal pressing for some kind of resolution, then the blissful release of the final two lines, prolonging the ecstasy of the eventual cadence. But the music doesn’t resolve with that last vocal phrase, ‘Et je m’en souviens’, but is carried by the piano to the subdominant, major and minor sevenths alternating gloriously before the longed-for release. Hard to describe Poulenc without using the imagery of orgasm. He’s just that kind of composer.

Any amount of analysis doesn’t explain why I feel the way I do about the music. You can break it down into chords and patterns, but exactly why this note here or that note there should make me shiver is a mystery, not least because I may be the only person it affects in this way. What has given me the context to ascribe this particular emotion to this particular part of this particular song is all the music I have ever listened to. I’ve devised an inexpressible grammar of music in my mind. I don’t know how to approach that, or whether it matters.


Image by Dschwen from Wikimedia Commons.


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